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July 2002

Girl Group

Ludwig I's Gallery of Beauties

Every summer, crowds flock to Nymphenburg Palace to marvel at the scale and grandeur of the place, wander the beautiful gardens and admire the porcelain. But for many, the principal attraction is a white and gold room in the south wing of the palace, which houses King Ludwig I’s famous “Schönheitengalerie,” or Gallery of Beauties. Members of the Wittelsbach dynasty had always been patrons of the arts, but Ludwig I was the most munificent of all. He is largely responsible for creating Munich as we know it today. Cutting the court budget, he wore threadbare clothes while pouring money into the construction of Munich’s most striking landmarks and museums, including Königsplatz and the Alte and Neue Pinakotheks. Along with art and architecture, Ludwig was also notoriously obsessed with female beauty. He appointed Joseph Karl Stieler as court painter in 1820. The romantic, flattering portraits that earned the artist royal favor also made him an ideal choice for Ludwig’s special commission of 36 soft-focus portraits of beautiful women, which he painted between 1827 and 1850. Stieler’s talent for depicting rich fabrics must have been one of the qualities that ensured his position in the Wittelsbach court. Lustrous silks, velvets, chiffons and furs frame the women’s creamy complexions. More humble subjects were dressed above their station, and given the clothes in which they were painted. Hair was the artist’s other specialty—lovingly-detailed braids, ringlets and flowing locks. Whether looking softly into our eyes or gazing wistfully into the distance, the women surrender themselves to the viewer. And this is the point. While many of these women were reputed to be lovers of the king, he possessed them all through this genteel 19th-century collection. The two most famous portraits in the gallery neatly encapsulate the classic virgin/whore labels applied to beautiful women. Virtue is portrayed by pretty little Helene Sedlmayr, while seductress Lola Montez is vice. Known as the “schöne Münchnerin” (pretty Munich girl), Helene Sedlmayr’s portrait is held in great affection here in Munich. A humble cobbler’s 17-year-old daughter, who caught the eye of the king, pouts demurely from her portrait, an image of sweet innocence. Ludwig took a paternal interest in her, ensuring that she was well married, and she went on to have ten children and lived to the age of 85. The portrait of Lola Montez is often described as “smoldering.” In fact, it is only her reputation that smolders. She is depicted with the same girlish freshness as the other subjects, and she is one of the more modestly dressed, covered up to her throat. Her vibrancy shows through, though—she seems about to jump up and walk out of the frame. The portrait’s fascination lies in the story behind it, because Lola’s charms led to Ludwig’s downfall. Ludwig first saw the 28-year-old dancer when he was 60 years old. Born Eliza Gilbert of Limerick, Ireland, she styled herself as a Spanish flamenco dancer and soon won notoriety across Europe for her seductive performances and her affairs with such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas. She arrived in Munich at a time of political unrest, and Ludwig’s obsession with this “dangerous” woman tipped the balance. Her inclusion in this gallery of virtuous beauty was one of many public gestures of affection that shocked Münchner. (Ludwig also had the portrait copied so that it could hang in his own rooms.) The government, alarmed by the liaison, requested that Ludwig expel Lola from Bavaria. Outraged, he sacked the entire cabinet, nearly provoking civil war. Eventually Lola was forced to flee in disgrace, and died in obscure poverty 13 years later. But Ludwig’s standing was already ruined, and the king reluctantly abdicated in 1848, a year after the portrait was painted. Everyone will have their own favorite amongst these beauties, and the guards on duty will often be happy to tell you the gossip behind the faces. Marie, Queen of Bavaria, was mother to Ludwig’s grandson Ludwig II, who built Bavaria’s famous fairy-tale castles and bankrupted the state in the process. Dark-eyed Nanette Kaula, a merchant’s daughter, is a reminder of a time when Jewish people were respected, prominent members of German society. Stieler barely makes it into the annals of art history, but with Ludwig’s Gallery of Beauties he has found a place in the hearts of Münchner, and the visitors to Nymphenburg Palace. Opening hours 9 am to 6 pm, Thursdays 9 am to 8 pm. Admission to the palace is € 3.50/2.50. Children under 18 are admitted free. A combined ticket for € 7.50/6.00 also gives access to the museums of carriages and porcelain and to the garden lodges.

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